January 31, 2011
With signing day looming, it's time for the Doc's annual, week-long defense of the recruiting-industrial complex. (See parts one, two, three, four and five.) Part Six: The most productive individual classes of the last 10 years.
10. TCU (2006). The numbers don't lie: After a redshirt year for the vast majority of this unheralded crop, the Horned Frogs racked up 44 wins over the next four years, delivering three top-10 finishes, two undefeated regular seasons and TCU's first perfect record in 72 years with a Rose Bowl triumph over Wisconsin. Ten starters in the win over the Badgers were fifth-year seniors from the '06 class, including the captain of all 44 of those wins, quarterback Andy Dalton (two-time Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year), and three unlikely All-Americans, defensive end Wayne Daniels, center Jason Kirkpatrick and safety Tejay Johnson.
The best of the bunch, defensive end Jerry Hughes, went out a year earlier off back-to-back consensus All-America honors in 2008-09, but wasn't missed much. The Frogs' veteran D led the nation in total defense last year for the third year in a row.
9. Boise State (2007). Barely a month after their dramatic, validating upset over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, the Broncos inked a who-dat quarterback and a pair of three-star receivers from Southern California, and forged the core of the passing game that would propel the program to a new level of national consciousness. With a full season still in front of him, QB Kellen Moore has already defied the scouts to become an All-American, Boise State's first Heisman finalist and the architect of 38 wins in 40 starts, largely by connecting with classmates Austin Pettis and Titus Young. The '07 class yielded starters at virtually every position – nine in all, so far – and the best record in America against any schedule, but if there's any chance of another breakthrough before the '07 crop moves on for good, it has to be on Moore's already prolific arm this fall.
8. Alabama (2008). Nick Saban laid the foundation for a resurgence with his first recruiting class in 2007, but really breathed life into his reclamation project with class No. 2, which brought 'Bama both the offensive firepower (tailback Mark Ingram, receiver Julio Jones) and defensive muscle (defensive linemen Terrence Cody and Marcell Dareus) it would eventually ride to a national championship. In 2008, that crop helped the Tide to an undefeated regular season as true freshmen, before dropping their last two to the teams that would finish No. 1 and No. 2 in the final polls; in 2009, they finished the job, grinding out a 14-0 finish with Ingram's Heisman Trophy campaign front and center
Ingram, Jones and Dareus' early exits for the draft this spring mean the class' legacy is largely set after just three years, but linebacker Don'ta Hightower, safety Mark Barron and a small handful of fellow '08 vets return on a relatively grizzled defense in the fall with a chance to nudge their stay in Tuscaloosa from "great" to "legendary."
7. USC (2005). Top-ranked quarterback Mark Sanchez may go down as the headliner, but this class was always about the defense. Linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing played immediately as true freshmen on the '05 team that narrowly missed on its second consecutive BCS title, and went on to lead a unit that led the Pac-10 in total and scoring D three years in a row from 2006-08. Those teams extended the Trojans' Pac-10 championship streak to seven consecutive seasons (turning in the best four-year winning percentage in the country in the process), and went out in 2008 by allowing fewer points per game (9.0) than any other Division I defense of the entire decade. Seven members of the 2005 class were starters on that defense, and six went in the '09 draft alone.
6. LSU (2004). The defensive linemen here should be enough to send chills up the rest of the SEC's spines. In a single class, the Tigers inked two future top-five draft picks (Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson), a future All-American (Claude Wroten, a JUCO addition) and another pair of reliable starters (Marlon Favorite and Charles Alexander). Between Dorsey, Jackson, Favorite, Early Doucet, Brett Helms, Jacob Hester, Chevis Jackson, Herman Johnson, Luke Sanders, Craig Steltz and Curtis Taylor, the '04 class alone accounted for half of the starting lineup for the Tigers' 2007 BCS championship team.
5. Oklahoma (2006). In terms of exporting high-end talent to the next level, this is arguably the most productive class ever assembled. Three Sooners who arrived in Norman in 2006 (Sam Bradford, Gerald McCoy and Trent Williams) went in the first four picks of the same NFL draft four years later, and impossible bounty from one school, with a fourth (Jermaine Gresham) going later in the first round. All four were consensus All-Americans at OU, and after watching their more celebrated classmates depart for fame and fortune, three of the final holdovers from the '06 class (Jeremy Beal, Quinton Carter and DeMarco Murray) went out with first-team All-Big 12 nods en route to a final conference championship as fifth-year seniors. (Yet another '06 signee, Jenks, Okla., native Chase Beeler, was an All-American last year for Stanford, blocking for its Sam Bradford clone, Andrew Luck.)
That haul yielded four Big 12 championships in five years from '06-09, but the closest the Sooners came to putting it all together at once was in 2008, the year of the highest-scoring offense in Division I history and a subsequent Heisman Trophy for Bradford. The Sooners fell short of the BCS championship that season, though, and watched their last, best chance go up in smoke in 2009 when both Bradford and Gresham were essentially lost for the season before halftime of the first game.
4. Florida (2006). Tim Tebow was the face of the program, first and always, but the '06 class eventually produced three more All-Americans (Percy Harvin, Brandon James and Brandon Spikes, all two-time honorees) and seven other starters who formed the core of the group that went 48-7 with two SEC championships, two national championships and three BCS wins in four years. This class spanned the supernova years that defined the Urban Meyer era in Gainesville, matching the Wuerffel/Spurrier years (1993-96) as the best four-year run in school history.
3. Ohio State (2002). Five-star running back Maurice Clarett stole the show from the day he stepped on campus, immediately installing himself as the centerpiece of a cloud-of-dust attack that was just good enough to grind its way to a BCS championship in his first season (and only season, as it turned out) in Columbus. Even if most Buckeye fans would prefer to excise Clarett's name from the record, though, the rest of the '02 class still gave them 11 eventual draft picks, 10 multi-year starters, four All-Americans (A.J. Hawk, Nick Mangold, Quinn Pitcock and Troy Smith), four first-round draft picks (Hawk, Mangold, Bobby Carpenter and Santonio Holmes), a Heisman Trophy winner, a future Super Bowl MVP, and, finally, another undefeated regular season in 2006.
The only thing it didn't give them: Another national title. The Buckeyes' BCS Championship flop against Florida in January '07 ended a 15-week run as the nation's No. 1 team and ushered in "SEC Speed" as the prevailing meme of the era.
2. Texas (2002). Even on signing day 2002, this class was not only Vince Young. There were five other five-star commitments alongside the nation's most coveted prospect, including two (Justin Blalock and Rodrique Wright) who'd eventually join Young on All-America teams. So would four-star cornerback Aaron Ross, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's best defensive back in 2006. Brian Robison, Kasey Studdard and David Thomas all found their way into the draft and still remain on NFL rosters.
With Young at the head of a veteran lineup, the 2004-05 Longhorns won 24 of 25 games, punched Texas' ticket to the BCS for the first time, fielded one of the most prolific offenses in college football history, delivered Mack Brown's first Big 12 championship and added their name to the pantheon with the epic, 41-38 comeback over mighty USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl, arguably college football's crowning moment of the last generation.
1. USC (2003). On the opposite side of that cataclysm was the culmination of the most absurdly talented yet of the Trojan recruiting classes that owned the top of the recruiting rankings for most of the decade. By the end of 2005, the members of USC's top-ranked '03 haul hadn't experienced defeat since the fifth game of their college careers, and had spent 33 consecutive weeks as the No. 1 team in the AP poll. The class superstar, Reggie Bush, was orbited by 11 '03 classmates who would eventually go in the draft, six of them – Sam Baker, Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson, Steve Smith,Terrell Thomas and LenDale White – in the first two rounds. The last of that group went out in 2007 with five consecutive Pac-10 championships and a BCS title to show for an unrivaled run of dominance, which will remain on the books for a few more weeks, at least.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.